Monday, September 21, 2009

Sandwich Principles

Sandwiches have always been one of my favorite foods.  The idea of all food groups coming together in one food entity is interesting and appealing to me.  I’ve had countless sandwich experiences over the years, both of my own making and those of others.  Based on those experiences and experiments I have conducted, I have discovered the following true principles of sandwich making.


A dry sandwich is a complete and utter failure.  PBJ’s are the most common culprit for violating this principle, but meat sandwiches can do it sometimes, so care must still be taken.  Moisture can come from a number of sources: condiments, veggies, sauces, and some meats.  A good sandwich fills the mouth with every bite, and that moisture is essential for chewing and swallowing.  Note: mayonnaise, olive oil, and other fats might not technically be “moist”, but they count if they provide the necessary lubrication.

Stacking Order

The order you put things on a sandwich matters more as the sandwich gets bigger.  Even though it all gets mixed together in your mouth eventually, it doesn’t start that way.  A classic example is mustard and salty meat.  Usually, the salty meat should go on top of the mustard so they enter the mouth together.  The acidity of the mustard tempers the saltiness of the meat, and the strong flavors of the meat tempers the power of the mustard.  When put next to each other on the sandwich, they enter the mouth together and right from the start of chewing they are synergizing.  If you put the mustard on the top half, then when you take a bite, you get strong, salty meat in one part of your mouth, and strong, acidic mustard in another.  Only after several chews do the two mix properly.

Surface Area for Sauces

Sauces have a tendency to run out of a sandwich.  I’m sure you’ve all eaten a sandwich or hotdog during which some sauce squirted or dripped out when you took a bite.  LAME!  A good sandwich needs moisture, but that moisture is not doing its job when it’s on your shirt.

No matter how thin a sauce is, at least some if it will stick to whatever surface it touches.  The key to keeping the sauce on the sandwich is to provide enough surface area.  Even thick sauces like mayonnaise will squirt when surface area is insufficient (or if there's too much sauce).

Shredded lettuce is the easiest way to add surface area for sauces.  For that matter, all veggies add surface area and nooks and crannies for sauce.  Don’t use lettuce leaves.  In addition to not having much surface area, they also violate another sandwich principle (discussed below).

The format of the meat you use also makes a difference.  Shredded beef (like in the pot roast sandwiches) has a lot more surface area than the sliced deli meats.  These sandwiches hold in the gravy because the beef had surface area!

Keep the Contents in the Sandwich

This is the classic sandwich problem and is a more general problem than the sauce problem discussed above.  This is also my kids’ least favorite sandwich issue (more tears have been shed at our dinner table over falling-apart sandwiches than any other thing).  When you buy bite into a sandwich, the filling should not fall out the back side or even get pushed out like a hernia.

Many restaurants serve their sandwiches with a toothpick stuck down the middle.  While effective, the toothpicks are hard to eat around, and eventually you have to take it out altogether, leaving you alone with the physics catostrophe assembled in the kitchen.  While I have learned various techniques for eating those sandwiches which keep me from joining my children in tears, there are things the artist can do to create a sandwich that is easier to eat.
  • Shredded lettuce, cheese, and meat not only increase sauce surface area, but they also greatly reduce slippage.
  • Put slices of meat, cheese, and lettuce directly against the bread and put those lubricating sauces in the middle.
  • Hollow out the roll/loaf you’re using (this helps in 3 ways, discussed more below)
  • Put less stuff on the sandwich.  It’s sad when you have to make cuts, but sometimes you just have to.
Hollow out the Bread

In addition to the 3 ways this helps keep sandwich contents in the sandwich, this also reduces the amount of bread that is diluting the flavors in your sandwich already.  This is where good bread really shines.  In the sandwiches I made at our recent family reunion, the bread provided a crispy, chewy shell with a taste I could still discern amidst all the other ingredients.  It was delicious.  If you use store-bought french bread, hollow it out for sure, because otherwise you’re going to be chewing a whole lot of sub-par bread.  Just pull out the knife and get that bread out of the way.

Here are the 3 ways hollowing out the bread keeps the fillings in the sandwich:
  • The sandwich ends up thinner, so it’s easier to fit in your mouth.  The way the jaw is hinged, it pushes forward and up, and your mouth blocks the filling from getting squished into your mouth, so the only place it has to go is out the back of the sandwich.  A shorter sandwich lessens this pushing action.
  • Cut a loaf of bread in half and open it up.  Lay them there on the table cut side up.  What do you see?  Two flat surfaces.  Slap some mayo on there, and you have 2 slippery slides to build your sandwich on.  Hollow them out and suddenly you have gravity on your side.
  • Hollowed out, the bread forms a shell that nearly (or completely) encases the fillings.  It is much easier to hold the sandwich such that your hands can keep the bread barrier in place so the fillings don’t come out.
That last one was the reason I typically make 4 smaller loaves instead of 2 larger ones when I make bread.  The easiest part of a loaf of bread to eat as a sandwich is the end, because it has a complete barrier all around the edge.  Twice the loaves means twice the ends.  Middle pieces lose that protection.  Ideally, the sandwich loaves would be small enough so that only wholes or halves are needed to serve everyone.

Our reunion was actually the first time I tried hollowing out the bread, and those sandwiches were by far the easiest to eat of all the big sandwiches I’ve ever made.  I didn’t hear any single child cry this time.

Balance Taste and Texture

This is a general cooking principle, and it’s often ignored by the ordinary home chef.   By “taste” I’m talking about the 4 types of taste buds we have: sour, sweet, salty, bitter.  By “texture” I’m talking about mouth sensations like crispy, crunchy, chewy, soft, creamy, oily, astringent (think: cranberry juice), meaty, spicy.  Foods that have more than 1-2 types of taste are perceived as being fuller and deeper, and to have more developed flavor.  Foods that have a variety of textures are just plain funner to chew.

Mayonnaise is so good because it tastes a little sweet, a little salty, and a little sour with a creamy/oily texture that compliments salty meat so well.  For many, mayo is all a sandwich needs.

Cured meats and cheeses and many kinds of veggies (like lettuce and green pepper) have some bitter flavor in them—not enough to really notice in the sandwich, but enough to excite some of those taste buds and make the overall sandwich experience fuller.

Bread, tomatoes, some kinds of vinegar, mayonnaise, onions, and bell peppers all impart some sweet flavors.  Again, they’re not enough to make the sandwich taste sweet, but they fill out the flavor.

Sour comes from mayo, mustard, pepperoncinis, pickled jalapenos, vinegar, pickles, and some kinds of cheese; and even fermented sausages like salami and pepperoni have a slight tang to them.

Salty is easy: meat, cheese, mayo, pickles, olives—even salt itself is sometimes warranted.

Whatever kind of sandwich you want to make, make sure you have all those taste bases covered.  Your palate will vary from others, and you might prefer a different balance between the 4 tastes than someone else, but you need some of each to enjoy a full flavor.

The same goes for texture.  Variety is fun.  With bread, meat, veggies, cheese, and sauce, a sandwich already has a lot going for it, but there are still twists and turns you can take.

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